Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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